Dragged kicking and screaming into the 20th century -- yes, the 1900s -- the Manitoba government is now opening up the sale of alcohol on the merits of the commodity itself. It is allowing people to imbibe without having to order food and in a venue other than a bar, beer garden or restaurant. Here's to liberalization!
While it might be tempting to think the age of reason has dawned, that heady spirit is tempered by the fact that none of the legal amendments is aimed at freeing up the market, to inject real choice, competition and convenience. The provincial government sits firmly in control of the importation, distribution and selection of most alcohol and its pricing. By expanding the places and the hours one can get a drink, the cash-strapped NDP is expanding its revenue.
All of the profits of the liquor commission go to the provincial treasury. In 2012, that amounted to $254 million, not including the $22.6 million in provincial sales tax levied at the till. That tax revenue is bound to rise, as well, with expanded availability and a PST now at eight per cent. More booze sales, more bucks. That is why this government refuses to contemplate real competition, by privatizing distribution and retail.
In Alberta, where the booze trade was privatized 20 years ago, there are 1,314 retail outlets compared to 208 government stores in 1993. Retailers there, bearing smaller government markups, can engage in real competition and that means savings to the consumers. Today, the price of a 40-ouncer of Bacardi White at Costco in Calgary is $28.39; in any Liquor Mart in Winnipeg, a 1.14-litre bottle costs $33.39. A bottle of Wolf Blass Yellow Label cabernet sauvignon at the same Costco is $12.49. Winnipeg's price is $16.99.
It is a nice thought, to be downtown on a warm evening, listening to a jazz festival artist on the street, lounging or walking about with a beer in hand. That day might not be too far off. Even better would be the convenience of running to the local 7-Eleven to pick up a bottle of wine at competitive prices.